Our resident pints correspondent headed out to the furthest reaches of the capital.
If London is to be rather generously defined as everything inside the M25, then there are plenty of uncanny or unusual places within its 117-mile perimeter. There’s the Dorsetine village of Harmondsworth, where grand 17th-century halls and homes border the Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre, and the near-constant rumble of traffic from Heathrow fills the air.
There’s the beach at Brent Cross, a weird slice of Southend in the shadow of the North Circular. There’s Croydon. But travel downriver and you’ll find landscapes truly unlike any other. Over the years, the city has pushed out east what it doesn’t want to see or sniff, with the Thames beyond Barking now blighted by pumping stations, sewage treatment works and rows upon rows of intermodal shipping containers.
So when The Fence asked me to pick a pub for my next lager-fuelled dispatch, I thought instantly of one place. The home of Dracula, the darts and the Dartford Crossing. Yes, that’s right – Purfleet. Or Purfleet-on-Thames, as the locals would prefer you to call it now; the Stainesian suffix coming in 2020 in a hopeful bid to bring a genteel air to the Essex border town.
But what really attracted me to Purfleet was a lack of refinement that no quaint name change could ever alter. It’s a place that seems both utterly dead and a hive of activity all at once. Yes, there’s the Lakeside shopping monolith over the other side of the A282, but in the town itself there are just two small convenience stores, one kebab shop, a hotel and a pub, The Fleet. The rest of Purfleet is dominated by industry: Jewson, Esso, Unilever.
I wanted to find out what it’s like to drink in a place that, despite being only 28 minutes by train from Fenchurch Street, is a fully functioning international shipping port. Other than a smattering of coiled cul-de-sacs, this is a place of conglomerates, cargo and massive car parks. And with all that comes transience, one of boozing’s most alluring bedfellows. So, on a crisp Saturday afternoon, we convened symbolically at an old friend of The Fence, The Spotted Dog in Barking and, after two pints of very acceptable Guinness, took a c2c along the Thames towards the end of London.
When you step out of the train station at Purfleet, the first thing you notice is the ruins of an Indian restaurant. It’s an arresting sight: a rotting wooden shack with tatty asphalt roof, long since graffitied by the best of Thurrock’s youthful malcontents and half-swallowed up by buddleia and bramble. Soon, you notice that it’s not the only decay in the village – over the road is Aislies, a pebble-dashed newsagent that hasn’t seen the Sun in at least 15 years.
Opposite the faded grandeur of the Royal Hotel there’s a fin de siècle cottage kitted out with the latest battleship grey Sitex security screens. I’d heard whispers that somewhere, hidden behind the pewter-coloured palisades and tall wooden panels that line much of the town’s westerly roads, lay the remains of an 18th-century chapel, built by the beer baron Samuel Whitbread on the site of an ancient chalk pit as a place for his quarry workers to pray. I thought that this would be a prescient location to start a Purfleet pub crawl, given that Whitbread & Co. once owned many of your favourite London pubs (and today still operate the A-road eateries Brewers Fayre and Beefeater), but every route into the pit was inaccessible to all but the boldest of UrbExers. No matter – there was a Thames path to traverse, and I figured that there was probably only about an hour or so left of sunlight anyway before darkness and our destiny of Tequila Rose shots at The Fleet.
To get on to the riverside walk you first have to squeeze through an inauspicious gap in some steel fencing. The land you’re about to enter, the construction hoarding nearby tells you, has been acquired. Thurrock Council have big plans for Purfleet: a £1 billion regeneration project that will transform the town into ‘a desirable riverside destination’, which rather downplays its current standing. If you build it, they will come – or so the council hopes.
By 2025 there should be an entirely redeveloped town centre, with new shops, restaurants and homes clustered around a futuristic, glass and steel train station. But the barren field we now found ourselves walking in was pure edgelands: all elephantine cinder blocks, burnt-out shopping trolleys and unweeded rubble mounds. Barring a brief moment of pint-addled paranoia when we clocked a distant bloke in a balaclava, it was a serene start to the journey and you’d never have guessed that behind the giant concrete flood defence to our right was a river loaded with activity.
The Thames always finds a way to make itself known and soon the wasteland gave way to a proper river path and the first sighting of a megastructure. The permaclogged Queen Elizabeth ii Bridge opened in 1991 to connect the north- and south-east sections of the M25 and its two great masts dominate the skyline of Purfleet, towering over the roll-on/roll-off cargo ships docked below.
Unbeknownst to us, 24 hours later two activists from Just Stop Oil would scale these 440ft bridge towers, blocking off the crossing for two days to highlight London’s reliance on oil – much of which originates from the refineries and depots of Purfleet. It’s hard to escape the presence of oil along the walk. It’s there in the ominous warning signs, some rusted and misshapen from years of weathering; some just hastily laminated Microsoft Word documents designed to deter would-be oil saboteurs from entering the ring-fenced compounds. It’s there in the smell of the bitumen byproducts, the chemical pong that every now and then assaults your nostrils. But it’s most noticeable in the mammoth cylindrical tanks that are absolutely everywhere: stillness reflecting stillness as they face off with the Thames.
Past the depots and shipping termini, it became apparent that our only two options were either to turn back or keep going deeper into the wilds of Essex, past the combination of cement works and the fantastic theme park of conveyor belts churning overhead. The light was fading fast and I was conscious that being lost on a pitch-black towpath as the buzz of our earlier pints dissipated would make for a pretty pub-less article. It was decided we were to push on – there looked to be a path by the Proctor & Gamble factory round the headland, and crucially another pub to stop at before the long walk back to Purfleet down London Road.
That last stretch of the walk in the dying autumn light was one of the most magical parts of the Thames I think I’ve ever been on. Out there, marshy banks bleed into the tidal mudflats, from which protrude all manner of detritus: shopping trolleys, tyres, wizened gnarls of iron and wood. Out on the river, cargo ships sit silently, brightly lit and waiting to be refuelled or unloaded.
Further out still, near the opposite bank of the river, the distribution centres and superstores of Greenhithe blink their reflections onto the calm of the Thames. And, thankfully for us, at the Blade Runner weirdness of the Proctor & Gamble site there is indeed a path, obscured by graffitied boulders but very much leading up into civilisation. And so, after a further 20 minutes of trekking past truck dealerships and mot garages, we reached our unplanned pitstop: The Ship Inn, West Thurrock.
In many ways, if I were to do the trip again, I’d probably just spend the whole evening in The Ship. For three windswept walkers desperate for a drink, it was perfect. There was a cosy carpet. There were wooden ceiling beams. There was a ‘Buy 10 Pints, Get 1 Free’ offer on. It was busy, too. I had wrongly thought a pub so close to an industrial zone would be a bit dead, but as it turns out The Ship (as well as The Old Shant, a pub further east along the road to Grays) has a massive catchment area of new-build houses from Chafford Hundred, South Stifford and the very edge of Purfleet. As a result, it was rammed with both families getting a bite to eat and local lads watching the last of the day’s football fixtures.
But we weren’t there for The Ship, and so after our whistles were suitably wetted by Mr Madri and his silly little waistcoat, we popped the collars of our proverbial Burberry macs and went tipsily into that good night once more.
The journey back to Purfleet was a little less memorable. It was essentially a straight line along the side of a built-up A-road, with only a touch of the liminal glamour that the first leg possessed. Even so, we still managed to take in Turkish takeaways, colourful self-storage facilities, implausibly well-lit car washes recently under new management, lonely Ibis hotels, a dead pub called The Rabbits, a pallet yard and, then, just past where the Eurostar shoots over the road and the Royal Opera House has its prop department, we reached our destination; the pub we actually came for: The Fleet.
I’ve drank in a lot of conventionally ugly pubs in my life, but The Fleet might just be the strangest of them all. For one, it looks startlingly like a motorway service station Little Chef; the brick embodiment of that episode of Peep Show where they go to a conference in Kettering. An engraving on the front of the pub alleges it was built in 1908, but the vibe is more last days of New Labour: a façade a thousand shades of brown, a concrete car park bigger than the footprint of the pub itself and barely a soupçon of greenery to liven the gaff up. Still, by now we were, once again, gagging for the fizz of a continental lager, and after all, it’s often the most visually unappealing of pubs that can have the warmest of atmospheres, so into The Fleet we went.
Inside, it’s massive. Which made it all the more disconcerting that the only clientele in on a Saturday night were five men standing close together at the bar and conversing in hushed tones. Each was chasing his lager with shots of vodka, the glasses of which were constantly being topped up by the barman, seemingly for free. Unfortunately for us, the food had finished for the day, so there was to be none of the microwaved onion rings we’d salivated over on the last section of our walk.
Instead we sank a couple of pints, claimed our Tequila Rose shots and found out a bit more about the pub. Despite the vodka-swilling gentlemen at the bar, it seemed to act as a sort of village hall at times, with festive fêtes for children and regular indoor markets. To be a community hub is, after all, what every good pub should aspire to, but just what would its role be when all the regeneration is complete and Purfleet has a commercial sheen to it? Pub culture often gets shunted to the sidelines in those sorts of glow-ups anyway, and The Fleet’s ascetic opening hours (it closes at 9pm Monday to Thursday) point to a venue that’s more comfortable acting as a restaurant and assembly room than as a late-night den of debauchery.
But with a new restaurant-filled market square in the pipeline, and with it all the bland signifiers of London gentrification, it’ll be interesting to see how the pub will adapt. For now though, there is something deeply heartening in knowing that establishments like The Fleet – and places like Purfleet, with all its strange industrial majesty – still exist.
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